This post all started because of a catfish named Thoreau. I am not a fan of Henry David Thoreau, however. There I said it. Hate me if you must. So much for the purity of nature and wilderness and pristine beauty, because I think there is something to be said for the urban and suburban park even if it was subdued by howling traffic noise. Henry The Writer would have torn his hair out and run off - and he would have missed out on some interesting conversation, too. Here in the midst of busy interstates and rural-turned-suburban roads in South Central Pennsylvania is this wilderness completely enmeshed in the works of human endeavors. I was looking for a place to spend Veteran's Day afternoon to just soak up the light and maybe meet some folks enjoying their day off. So after my work was finished at home I headed up to William Kain County Park that is literally bisected by Interstate 83.
|Lake Redman near York, PA|
Lake Redman and Lake William, the two lakes contained within the park hold almost 3 billion gallons of water and serves as York City's main water supply. Outside the city by a few miles, the water is pumped into town for showers, car washes, cooking, flushing, watering gardens and lawns, drinking. But here, before it makes its journey north, it fills a dammed valley and is home to all manner of wild things and loved by city residents. There were only a few folks out this day, however, so I found where the action was and hung out with some determined city fishermen as they jigged for catfish below the Lake Redman Road bridge. I listened through the sounds of I-83 traffic and as school buses and farm trucks rumbled by just inches from my perch on the rail of the rural country road bridge. The fishermen below me were all York City residents, all claiming a concrete abutment at each end of the bridge. I struck up a conversation with Tony.
|Tony the Fisherman|
Our conversation went mostly like this:
Tony - "I come out everyday. Everyday! I even ice fish. This is beautiful country and to think it's my backyard! God is blessing me everyday here!"
Me - "How do you come out here?"
Tony (pointing to the other fishermen gathered on each of the bridge's four abutment) - "We come in Noel's van everyday. He picks us up at Mickey's Barber Shop after Noel comes home from work. You know Mickey? He's a nice guy. And everyday when we get here that eagle and his wife are here. All year long. They fish here like us too. Last year they had some children. They fished too, when they were big enough. I will never get tired of watching those eagles." (On cue a bald eagle flies over, of course.)
Me - "I bet this place can get busy on a summer afternoon."
Tony - "You know what? On weekends it might get busy. But mostly it looks like it does today. Kids nowadays sit in front of their computers or the TV after school. Young men with nothing to do watch TV all day. Even the folks who do come out here walk around or sit on a picnic bench and do nothing but stare at their phones. That ain't right! Ain't they ever fished? You can fish for a lifetime and never see the same thing twice everyday you're out."
Me - "Why do you think that is? That young folks don't come out?"
Tony - "They wouldn't know what to do with themselves being all quiet and just watching. Them phones have replaced their brains. They don't have to think no more. Now they carry their brains around in their hands. Don't drop your brain! (Everybody laughs!) They can't hear nature's music neither cause they gots earplugs in. Or earphones - whatever you call them. They's deaf to all this."
|Home built fishing craft ply the waters of the Lake and are popular here. What a great rig this was!|
The park has many nice canoe and kayak launches but some people bring boats they've built themselves- it seems to be a city tradition here -while others take to the trails on mountain bikes or on foot. I did a little of both this afternoon, dropping my line into the lake for a while then heading off down to the boardwalk at the south end for some quiet observing. The farther you walk from the lake, the more the traffic noise recedes. Soon I was surrounded by woods and the familiar calls of a downy woodpecker. He was quite approachable as he made his way slowly out to the farthest end of a twig, probing for insects. A female downy was up the hill, but unlike her mate, she was sticking to main trunks and large limbs. You can tell a male and a female apart by the little red patch on the back of the male's head where the female has no red at all. Sometimes the birds are far off and even with binoculars you can't see the presence or absence of the patch, so its easier to note where they are on the tree. The males venture out on twiggy thin branches, while the females work the main trunks.
|Downy woodpecker, male.|
Red tinted alder stems brightened the shoreline draped with their brownish-pink catkins. Some stems appeared to be sporting patches of snow. Snow? But how could this be? Our first snow flurry isn't forecast until early Friday morning and besides it was in the mid-60s. Upon closer inspection I discovered the twigs were collared with gatherings of wooly alder aphid. These insects produce waxy streamers that make them look more like mold than a tasty meal for a predator. The streamers help the insect drift off on the wind, floating on a breeze like a fluffy plant seed. The patch I found was clearly preparing to take flight. Shortening days and cooler temperatures signal that it's time to find a silver or red maple on which to burrow and lay eggs in bark crevices. When the eggs hatch in spring the young will suck juices from tender maple leaves and most certainly be tended by black tree ants that collect sweet honeydew these insects produce. By August the maturing aphids will make for the alders floating like snowflakes in summer to continue to feeding on plant juices and grow to sexual maturity.
|Wooly Alder Aphid|
The trail wound around the lake, across a boardwalk, and up the hill to where it runs along a field edge bordering a farm. Thoreau did not like farmers, so he wouldn't have liked this trail. Of course, during his two year Walden Pond experiment, the pond and the woods surrounding it were bordered by farms most of which were run down and exhausted. Farmers to Thoreau represented waste, laziness, and ignorance, and he clung to these ideas even as he worked as a surveyor's assistant and helped divide up the very lands (woods and all) he once praised for their wild attributes He did not approve of private ownership, yet earned his living defining boundaries.
|The trail skirts a beautiful farm. I counted three different kinds of soil conservation practices along this stretch.|
The trail circled back to the parking area through a scrubby stand of trees, standing bare now. The rough and thorny look of the woods contained a winter flock of small birds rooting around in the brush. The sun dipped to touch the crest of the hill. Two winter wrens, my first for the year, dropped into a tuft of weeds to settle for the night. The landscape, though heavily altered and managed by humans, held its wildness close. With the noise of trucks thundering along the interstate and the homeward-bound rush hour traffic rising with the early darkness, bird sounds drifted into silence. Gulls winged out to the parking area to stand and sleep on the warm pavement. Crows gathered to their night roosts. A heron squawked as she glided onto a log where she'll do a little night fishing near the bridge.
|Bay-Brown Polypore - these fruit in fall on short stalks from damaged oaks.|
I recrossed the Lake Redman Road bridge and found the fishermen packing up for the evening. Tony was happy to show me the large catfish he caught. "This will make a fine dinner! I tossed a few small ones back, but this one I sure wouldn't throw. Don't Thoreau the Catfish!" The group of men howled in laughter, slapping their thighs and teasing Tony for naming his fish Thoreau. We all walked together back to our cars and the men carefully packed their fishing gear and buckets into Noel's van. In fifteen minutes the fishermen would be back in their homes along the old streets of York City. I'm sure Thoreau The Writer would not have appreciated the utilitarian use of the park but he would have identified with the rejuvenation the fishermen took home with them along with their catfish. He might also have enjoyed a catfish named in his honor, too.
|Sunset over Lake Redman|
Just beyond those hills is the city line. Standing here with the sounds of traffic as backdrop to a darkening lake, I puzzled over Thoreau's biases and irreconcilable beliefs about utility vs. nature. The woods in which he lived at Walden Pond was cut regularly for firewood by townsmen and farmers, even as he lived in his simple cabin. The gentleness of his surroundings had been tamed generations before by settlers, so much so that Thoreau needn't have worried about predators or angry Indians and his romantic views of nature became possible. I wonder if the romantic era of nature writing would have happened at all if the landscapes in which writers like Thoreau lived hadn't been made simple shadows of a more brutal and violent time when nature was feared and then beaten into submission. All this ruminating about Thoreau abruptly ended when two coyotes yipped from the hilltop trail I had just traveled along! The new urban - suburban wilderness emerges. What would Thoreau have made of this?!